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Twenty-One Years On, US Detention at Guantánamo Bay Remains Unconscionable

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It’s been more than 20 years since Toffiq al-Bihani was arrested by Iranian police, transferred to Afghan authorities and then turned over to U.S. custody. Held in solitary confinement and tortured by CIA agents in Afghanistan, al-Bihani was sent to the United States’ Guantánamo Bay detention camp in Cuba in February 2003. He has languished there ever since. He has never been charged with committing a crime.

Al-Bihani is just one of 20 men held at the Guantánamo Bay detention camp for nearly two decades, never charged with a crime, and cleared by U.S. security agencies for release from the prison. Some have been in limbo for well over a decade. Al-Bihani remains stuck there to this day, despite the Biden administration’s stated intention to close the infamous detention center.

Jan. 11 marks the 21st anniversary of the opening of the detention center at Guantánamo Bay. Created by the administration of President George W. Bush after the 9/11 attacks to evade the requirements of U.S. law, the prison has held nearly 800 Muslim men and boys who were captured overseas or turned over to U.S. authorities, often in exchange for bounties. The vast majority of those men were never charged with any crimes. Although hundreds were released over the years, 35 men remain at Guantánamo today, at the astronomical cost of $540 million per year. That makes Guantánamo the most expensive detention facility in the world.

Contrary to the claim by former Vice President Dick Cheney that the men remaining at Guantánamo were the “worst of the worst,” most are just the unluckiest: they came from countries whose governments were unable or unwilling to lobby for their return. That was the case with al-Bihani, a Yemeni national raised in Saudi Arabia. And because the ongoing indefinite detention of Muslim men at Guantánamo has fallen off the U.S. political radar, he and his fellow detainees have spent decades imprisoned without charge or trial, with little to no apparent effort being made to end this glaring injustice.

Amnesty International, where I work, has joined 158 other organizations to urge the Biden administration to finally put an end to the nightmare of Guantánamo and close the prison. Although Congress has for years refused to allow the Department of Defense to transfer any of the detainees to the United States, the Biden administration can and should transfer them to other countries where their human rights will be respected. (The Bush and Obama administrations both managed to safely transfer hundreds of detainees out of Guantánamo to other countries.)

As we write in our letter to the president, although the Guantánamo prison is now 21 years old, it is not a problem of the past. The prison continues to cause profound and escalating damage to the aging and increasingly ill men still detained indefinitely there, most without charge and none having received a fair trial. It has also devastated their families and communities. The continued existence of a prison created only to hold Muslim men and boys indefinitely and without due process also continues to fuel and justify bigotry, stereotyping, and stigma. Guantánamo entrenches racial divisions and racism and encourages other countries to commit similar rights violations.

That the Guantánamo detention center has existed for 21 years as a site of mass incarceration of men not even accused of crimes is as unconscionable as it is tragic. So is the fact that more than 21 years after the 9/11 attacks, no one has been held accountable. Not one of the five men accused by the dysfunctional Guantánamo military commissions of helping coordinate the attacks has been put on trial or allowed to plead guilty. Their cases have been bogged down in pretrial proceedings, thwarted in large part by government secrecy about the detainees’ treatment, for more than ten years. Meanwhile, the petitions for habeas corpus filed by al-Bihani and ten other detainees have been pending, undecided, in the D.C. District Court for five years.

If this were happening in any other country, the U.S. government – and the American public – would be outraged. But it’s happening in our own country. And our government does not seem to be doing very much about it.

The Biden administration must commit to closing Guantánamo before the end of President Biden’s first term in office. It should also commit to a radically different approach to national and human security, and a meaningful reckoning with the full scope of damage that the post-9/11 approach has caused.

IMAGE: Razor wire lines the fence of the Guantánamo Bay maximum security detention center on October 22, 2016, at the U.S. Naval Station at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

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